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The good vibes are real, and it’s not because the team is better

The team composition is a big deal

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Kansas City Royals first baseman Nick Pratto (32) celebrates with second baseman Nicky Lopez (8) after hitting a walk-off home run against the Boston Red Sox during the ninth inning at Kauffman Stadium.
Kansas City Royals first baseman Nick Pratto (32) celebrates with second baseman Nicky Lopez (8) after hitting a walk-off home run against the Boston Red Sox during the ninth inning at Kauffman Stadium.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone who has ever played a competitive game—be it in real life or video game form—with others knows that there’s a chicken and egg problem that pops up. That problem is this: winning feels good and cultivates good vibes. Losing feels bad and cultivates bad vibes. And yet, as you surely know, not all groups of people are the same. Some group dynamics are simply better than other group dynamics, regardless of how much you win or lose.

So...are the vibes better because you’re winning? Or are the good vibes helping to promote the winning? It’s a little like the Mitch Hedberg joke about the belt and the pant loops; who is the real hero?

The answer here is, perhaps frustratingly, not a binary one. Mood, vibes, culture, headspace, whatever you want to call it—they are important, and they can and do impact performance both individually and throughout a group. We know this because there have been studies on it, and they all say what you already know in your workplace: mood and emotions matter. A recent study from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania sums it up:

Employees’ moods, emotions, and overall dispositions have an impact on job performance, decision making, creativity, turnover, teamwork, negotiations and leadership.

“The state of the literature shows that affect matters because people are not isolated ’emotional islands.’ Rather, they bring all of themselves to work, including their traits, moods and emotions, and their affective experiences and expressions influence others,” according to the paper, co-authored by Donald Gibson of Fairfield University’s Dolan School of Business.

The tricky thing here, of course, is that winning impacts affect just as affect impacts importance. They exist in what physics and biology call a “complex system,” where elements within the system impact each other in, well, complex ways.

Regardless, what is not complex is that the Royals of two months ago were just plain miserable, and I don’t think it had everything to do with losing. Let’s take a look at some quotes from this article about the Royals’ clubhouse mood from June 8:

They all stared blankly at the Blue Jays’ handshake line.

Throughout this first third of the season, Matheny has not minimized the frustration that has lingered inside the clubhouse.

Hours before another game against the Astros, there was no chatter on any side of the room. If you dropped your pen, you could hear it hit the carpet.

Some of the Royals’ veterans sat not on the dugout rail but underneath the overhang.

At the end of June, 610 Sorts Radio Royals Insider Josh Vernier had this to say about the clubhouse:

I understand that you don’t want a clubhouse all jovial when you’re one of the four worst teams in Major League Baseball, but I’ve never really been in a professional clubhouse as quiet, as tense, from Day 1 until here, game number 71. I’ve never really been in a clubhouse likes this 2022 Kansas City Royals clubhouse ... There’s quite a bit of tension inside that clubhouse.

That’s not good! Those kind of quotes are of a clubhouse that is not doing so hot. Again: they were bad. From May 19 through June 14, the Royals only won six games. But that doesn’t quite explain the awful vibes in the clubhouse.

Fortunately—or, well, unfortunately, depending on your point of view—something happened in the middle of the season that explained some of the tension and helplessness in that clubhouse. That is, of course, that 10 Royals refused to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and were thus barred from playing in Toronto, a black eye on the organization that saw a wave of deserved criticism come from all over the sports world. No other team had more than four players who needed to be temporarily replaced because of vaccination status, and the Royals blew that out of the water.

Among the 10 Royals who refused to get vaccinated were the team’s veterans: Hunter Dozier, Whit Merrifield, Andrew Benintendi, Michael A. Taylor, and Cam Gallagher. Their explanations for why they did so ranged from downright stupid (Dozier’s complete failure to understand the basics of how vaccines work) to curt (Benintendi’s “it was a personal decision and that’s that” statement). But Merrifield, oh, Merrifield, his explanation was the worst: that he would get the vaccine if he had the chance at playing for a winner, a very clear statement that he doubled down on as he clarified what he meant by it.

With those veterans gone, the Baby Royals had to travel to one of the best teams in the American League and...the vibe, the affect, was totally different. You could see it in the players’ body language and in their answers to reporters. Nicky Lopez, suddenly the most veteran member of the team, gushed about the team after their first win against the Blue Jays.

It was an unselfish win. It was a great win. It was a lot of fun. Now, Lopez claims that he wasn’t throwing shade at his unvaccinated teammates. I believe that he did not mean to; Lopez gains nothing from doing so.

But it doesn’t matter whether or not he was throwing shade. In a way, he didn’t have to. The win and the team seemed different because it was different. It was different because the players with the loudest voices in the room were replaced by voices that were...let’s say “more team-oriented.” The Royals’ clubhouse issues probably don’t have anything specifically to do with the Toronto vaccination mess. Rather, it was a simple, discrete event that showed the difference between the old clubhouse and the new.

The Unvaccinated 10 eventually came back, but after the trade deadline, the team composition fundamentally changed. Merrifield and Gallagher, two of the longest tenured Royals, were traded away. So was Benintendi, the team’s best player and an important guy in the locker room. In their place: Michael Massey, Nate Eaton, and Nick Pratto, three of the guys who helped turn the Toronto series into the hoot it was.

You don’t have to do a whole lot of work to understand that the dynamic in the clubhouse is different. Just listen to the on-field interviews after wins, read quotes in the Star, and watch player body language in the dugout and on the field. And you don’t have to do a whole lot of wondering to come to a reasonable conclusion about why it’s different.

Yes, the current team composition is younger, hungrier, and more talented than it was in June. The team is better. But the good vibes aren’t only because the team is better. That’s in part because the team still isn’t good, really—they’ve been playing .500 ball; let’s not get carried away here. The good vibes are real because the clubhouse is improved. And though vibes don’t win games, it helps players be their best. Most importantly, it’s the exact environment the young guns need to improve.